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A Theory for Practice: But Where is Machiavelli?

A Theory for Practice: But Where is Machiavelli? A Theory for Practice: But Where is Machiavelli?
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antulio J. II, “A Theory for Practice: But Where is Machiavelli?”, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge Special Edition, March 2014, pages 9-11.

With criticism of contemporary strategy so fierce and so widespread these days, a theory with the potential to enhance strategic practice is most welcome. British failures in the implementation of strategy have been recently noted by the eminent historian Sir Hew Strachan.[i] The nature and extent of American strategic miscues meanwhile have been documented in sources too numerous to list here.[ii] Thus, Colin Gray’s Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, which comes to the aid of strategic practice by organizing and explicating its body of theory, is both timely and germane. As explained elsewhere, Strategy Bridge is a worthy addition to any library.[iii] However, the purpose of this review is to extend the critique further and to promote discussion.

Gray’s Strategy Bridge seeks to advance a “general theory of strategy explicable in terms that should be universally and eternally valid.”[iv] This task is obviously an ambitious one, as the author freely admits. We may judge a theory’s universality, but its eternal validity is another matter. Such an ambitious aim requires a positive verdict, not only from our generation, but from every successive one; a tall order indeed. Gray’s task, though, rests on the assumption that a fundamental strategic “logic” exists for strategy, and that it has been more or less successfully captured by history’s great strategic theorists, especially those the author ranks in the top tier—Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and Clausewitz. For that reason, the mission of Strategy Bridge is less daunting than it appears at first glance. Instead of beginning the construction of his bridge by drawing up an original blueprint, the author merely (and wisely) pulls together the essential principles from strategy’s canon and assembles them into a “coherent unity, a theory worthy of the ascription,” and does so in the language of our times.[v] This mission Gray accomplishes with his customary skill.

Readers will surely note that the contemporary theory advanced in Strategy Bridge is eminently defensible. It is hard to imagine anything but consensus on the book’s basic assumptions that strategy is universal, that its purpose is to seek “control over an enemy’s political behavior,” and that military force figures prominently in the process.[vi] Readers will also likely agree with Gray’s use of the “bridge” metaphor, which conveys the sense that strategy ought to be thought of as a two-way conduit between policy aims and military actions.  Strategists occupy the bridge, and bring policy aims into realization by converting military power into political consequences. Unfortunately, how that conversion should take place is too often elided in strategic theory; practitioners must discover it by trial and error. The assumption that military victories lead directly to policy successes has plagued Western ways of war for centuries. Nonetheless, the book describes the basic role of the strategist accurately. The author might have stated up front that strategists must also know how to convert political consequences, such as civil unrest following a defeat, into additional military power or political leverage; for military power is but military force combined with the influence of political circumstances. Fortunately, such points are generally implied throughout Strategy Bridge, as is the importance of bilateral (or multilateral) communications, and a shared understanding of the tasks to be accomplished and the capabilities of the means available. All of these are necessary for any bridge to achieve its purpose.

Readers will also welcome Gray’s discussion of those things that sometimes make strategy a “bridge too far.”  These include the difficulty of knowing what is possible, what should be done, how to do it, how to determine whether it is getting done, and in the right way. Most of these problems, of course, derive from the capabilities of an “inconvenient” opponent, the influence of friction, culture, personality, expertise, and the force of circumstances—all of which the author addresses. The same can be said for strategy’s enablers. He recounts some of each in list form in the book’s four appendices. These may be all too handy in some respects, but busy practitioners will no doubt find them useful. Despite the obvious difficulty of doing strategy, argues Gray, it remains a worthwhile labor because our actions will have strategic effects regardless, possibly severe ones. Strategy helps ensure those effects accrue to our benefit, and not to our adversary’s.

While Gray’s Theory for Practice is, by his own admission, not wholly original, it can be amply justified by its necessity. As the author notes, strategy’s canonical works are not always clear on vital points and the passage of time makes updates necessary. 

However, there is one donor to strategy’s canon who surely deserves more coverage in a theory purporting to address strategic practice; the much maligned but indispensible Niccolò Machiavelli. To be sure, the ingenious Florentine and his best works are mentioned several times in Gray’s Strategy Bridge.[vii] Yet, these references do not get to Machiavelli’s real contribution, what Sir Francis Bacon and others have referred to as the founding of an “objective science of politics.”[viii] Indeed, the Florentine’s overriding concern in his timeless Il Principe (The Prince) was decidedly “not with what should be, but with what is, not with hopes and fears, but with practical realities.”[ix] In the same vein, Gray’s Strategy Bridge might well have given readers more of “what is” in strategic life, as the book is primarily about what “should be.”

To be sure, scholars have long debated how The Prince should be read. Yet, the work’s introductory note provides the crucial clue: the manuscript is a crude dialectic of sorts. It is a distillation of knowledge regarding “what makes for greatness” in a ruler; but, importantly, it is an understanding achieved both through classical teachings and practical experience.[x] The former were openly revered in Machiavelli’s day, but the latter, especially for one aspiring to serve as an advisor, was manifestly invaluable. In fact, nowhere in The Prince are the classics derided or dismissed in favor of base preachings, as some have claimed. But, as the following quote shows, they are contemporized and couched with lessons drawn from a life that had been nasty, brutish, and (to that point) relatively short:

A ruler … needs to know how to be both an animal and a man. The classical writers, without saying it explicitly, taught rulers to behave like this. They described how Achilles and many other rulers in ancient times were given to Chiron the centaur to be raised, so he could bring them up as he thought best. What they intended to convey with this story … was that it was necessary for a ruler to know when to act like an animal and when like a man; and if he relies on just one or the other mode of behavior he cannot hope to survive.[xi]

Notably, Machiavelli’s own “experience of contemporary politics” was lengthy and less than ideal.[xii] He was tortured, tricked, lied to, betrayed, rewarded, demoted, and passed over. Fortune’s smile was less his lot than her frown. Yet, the critical point is that his advice, a true bridge from theory to practice, was a blend of canonical teachings and practical experience—though heavily weighted to the latter. To its ample credit, Gray’s Strategy Bridge contributes admirably to our knowledge, not only because of the book’s reliance on strategy’s classics, but also because of its fitting use of historical examples, the storehouse of practice. However, the bridge cants perceptively more in favor of the former than the latter, making travel across it risky for the strategist. The world of today’s strategist is not necessarily as nasty or brutish as that of Machiavelli, but it is far from ideal.

As generations of scholars have noted, the key theme running through The Prince, and which secured Machiavelli’s legacy as the founder of an objective science of politics, is the importance of self interest as a basis for political behavior. The advice in The Prince was aimed at a specific reader (initially Giuliano de’ Medici) whom Machiavelli clearly wanted to impress with wise counsel, advice that would enable Giuliano, a neophyte at governing, not only to rule but to survive.[xiii] As The Prince’s would-be advisor explains, it is in the ruler’s interest to appear virtuous at all times, but it is also in his interest to act otherwise when he must. Else, he will not last long: “For of men one can, in general, say this: They are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving, avoiders of danger, and eager to gain. As long as you serve their interests, they are devoted to you.”[xiv] Of course, the shrewd Florentine was also using The Prince to showcase his personal knowledge and talents, attributes he would bring to bear as a counselor, if granted the opportunity.

While Gray has no need to showcase his talents as a scholar and a theorist (they have been apparent for decades), his counsel needs to befit not just seasoned practitioners but neophytes like Giuliano. The dynamics, the clash of interests that combine to influence the implementation of strategy require more attention and explication; and Gray’s pen ought to have been the one to do so. As his favorite Prussian, Clausewitz, famously observed, politics is the “womb in which war develops.”[xv] Whatever is good or bad, proper or improper about a war ultimately comes back to its politics; and all politics are nothing but an ongoing conflict of interests, a quarrel that tends to persist regardless of the status of policy.

What holds true for war must also hold true for strategy. Without the telling influence of politics in mind, strategy can appear dangerously elementary. Its process should be straightforward, friction and inconvenient foes notwithstanding. Ideally, the principal actors in the formulation of strategy should be able to subordinate their individual interests to a larger one—that of winning the war quickly and with the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.  Some interests are served only by winning in a particular way, some by prolonging the conflict; and some are served by withdrawing as quickly as possible, whether victorious or not.  Vietnam is a good example.  Not only did the US Army and US Air Force have different ideas (tied intimately to service interests) about how the war should be fought, branches within each service also had different ideas about how to fight it.[xvi]  Service and branch interests were thus at odds not only with each other, but with the constraints of having to fight a limited war against unlimited aims. Outside the military, views about prosecuting the war were sharply divided along partisan lines.  The lines flipped and the interests changed sides when direction of the war transitioned from the presidency of Johnson (Democrat) to that of Nixon (Republican).

The critical absence of Machiavelli pertains as much to Gray’s Strategy Bridge as to how the theory of strategy is represented and taught more broadly. We are perhaps too quick to assign a unilateral logic to strategy when we ought to see it, not as paradoxical (or even ironic) as Gray suggests, but rather as dialectical.[xvii] Genuine paradoxes do not exist in war or, in truth, anywhere; both they and ironies that amuse and intrigue us are but artificial bridges that distance us from the hard choices, the risky tradeoffs, and the shifty compromises we must make when developing and executing strategy. More often than not, strategy splinters off in the several directions the prevailing interests take it in any case.

Perhaps one way to improve our practice of strategy would be to incorporate the idea of conflicting interests directly into our basic theory. Thinking of strategy as possessing a logic that is essentially dialectical may offer a better foundation than continuing to think of it in ideal terms. Our dialectical exchanges are evident not only in how we deal with our foes, but also how we interact with friends and allies, and how, ultimately, we reconcile political interests with military ones, or not. A happy synthesis between competing aims or between aims and capabilities is rarely achieved; rather, the conflicts between rival interests and between competing objectives continue in different forms. If contemporary strategic practice is truly deficient in some way, as recent events suggest, a lack of classical theory can hardly be the reason. It is more likely that we have yet to achieve our Machiavellian balance. The book that succeeds in doing that will truly be a classic.


[i] Sir Hew Strachan, “British National Strategy: Who Does It?” Parameters 43, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 43-52; also The Direction of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2014).
[ii] For a useful starting point see Anthony Cordesman, Changing US Security Strategy: The Search for Stability and the “Non-War” against “Non-Terrorism” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2013).
[iii] See Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Review of Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice,” Australian Army Journal VIII, no. 2 (2011): 215-16.
[iv] Colin S. Gray, Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010), 3.
[v] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 5.
[vi] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 7.
[vii] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 6, 24, 46, 198, 240.
[viii] Francis Bacon, Of Advancement of Learning, ed. G. W. Kitchin, (London: Dent, 1977) Book II, Chap. 21, p. 9; on Bacon’s debt to Machiavelli see Richard Kennington, On Modern Origins (Lexington, 2004); Vincent Luciani, “Bacon and Machiavelli,” American Association of Teachers of Italian 24, no. 1 (March 1947): 26-40.
[ix] Machiavelli, Prince, Wootton intro., xxxvii.
[x] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. and trans. by David Wootton, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publ., 1995), 5.
[xi] Machiavelli, Prince, 54.
[xii] Recent biographies include: Alan Ryan, On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory (New York: Liveright, 2014); Corrado Vivanti, Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, trans. Simon MacMichael, (Princeton: Princeton University, 2013); Maurizio Viroli, Redeeming “The Prince”: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece (Princeton: Princeton University, 2013).
[xiii] Machiavelli’s introduction is addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici, but Giuliano is considered to have been intended as the initial recipient.
[xiv] Machiavelli, Prince, 52. Some have pointed to Machiavelli’s sharp passages as little more than an exercise in dark humor, a style in vogue among some Renaissance literati; but it was more than that. The language and examples were deliberately chosen to demonstrate the Florentine’s dry wit and his facility with irony, all of which would distinguish him as a man of the world and an engaging and capable advisor.
[xv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University, 1984), Book II/Chap. 3, 148; Vom Kriege, 19th Ed., 303.
[xvi] Both Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Airpower and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1996) and Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1988) illustrate such dynamics.
[xvii] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 222.